WHEN I’M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST
By Quan Barry
302 pages. Pantheon Books. $27.
Twin brothers share a line of imperfect telepathic communication. They can speak to one another without opening their mouths. At night they eavesdrop on each other’s dreams. Experiences pass between the two “like books in a library.” When one twin drinks, the other gets a hangover.
The twins are Mun and Chuluun, 23 years old in 2015, when Quan Barry’s mesmerizing and delicate new novel, her third, takes place. Chuluun studies at the Buddhist monastery in the shadow of a Mongolian Volcano. Mun wears Western-style clothing and lives in Ulaanbaatar. Here he indulges himself in technology, tattoos and curse words. One man is calm, the other is mutinous. Their strange mental overlap can lead to mutual resentment. Each twin wants the other out.
They are brought together when tasked with the mission of roaming the country to find the next Dalai Lama — the child who will become the face of Tibetan Buddhism following the death of the incumbent. Three candidates are available for the brothers to visit: One in sub-Siberian Hill Country, one in a mountainous far west province and one at the southern reaches. Two boys, and one girl. Each child is a potential reincarnation for the original spiritual leader, who, according tradition, is successively embodied in the form of the Dalai Lama.
In this sense, the novel is a quest. The journey includes an accident, self-sacrifices, disasters, and death. There are natural wonders as well as metaphysical conundrums. Yak butter is available.
Mun, it turns to be, is a reincarnation himself of a historical character. At 8 years old, he is recognized as the fifth incarnation of the Paljor Jamgon, the “Redeemer Who Sounds the Conch in the Darkness.” It’s a long name for a little kid. Mun is “discovered” on the remote grasslands in much the way that a future pop star might be discovered on YouTube. He is then ordained at a monastery — somewhat against his will — and assumes a raft of responsibilities. He also receives tutors, a private cook and gifts. A golden cushion covers his blessed butt.
Chuluun, who has also been swept off to the monastery, adapts easily to the institution’s routines and restraints. He enjoys meditation, chanting, and meditation. Mun does not — he’d rather play games on horseback than demonstrate the unending compassion required of his position, and his recalcitrance causes whispers to circulate. Some monks wonder if Mun is worthy of the material distinctions he has been granted. One asks a colleague whether a mistake has been made — perhaps, he suggests, the leadership has recognized the wrong brother as a reincarnation.
Eventually — under circumstances that are initially cloudy — Mun renounces his robes and finds his way to the city, leaving Chuluun behind to practice calligraphy and ruminate on his sense of abandonment. A chasm between them forms when they are forced to reunite. The conflict alternately fuels and impedes their voyage in a rickety car across Mongolia’s steppes and dunes as they look for the Dalai Lama’s heir.
“When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East” is a wild departure from Barry’s previous novel, the fizzy and maniacal “We Ride Upon Sticks,” which took place in coastal Massachusetts and concerned a field hockey team, witchcraft, adolescent hormones and Emilio Estevez. The new novel is about faith, history, language, and yearning.
Barry’s abiding interest in enchantment is the connective tissue between the two books, but she has taken a giant leap forward as a novelist — where “We Ride Upon Sticks” was a lively but slightly disorganized romp, this one is a dazzling achievement. Form and subject matter combine in the book to alter a person’s very reading metabolism: The rhythms are more like prayer than prose, and the puzzlelike plot yields revelations in unassuming sentences that a skimming eye could easily miss.
The novel brims with formal peculiarities seemingly designed to cultivate alertness — and they do. A table of contents does not consist of chapter titles but nine illustrated symbols. Numerous chronological games are available. The text repeats the same phrases throughout. Chuluun’s narration shimmers between several time frames. The entire novel is written in the past tense.